Wednesday, June 14, 2017

How Widow McCloy aided Confederacy at Drewry's Bluff

View from Drewry's Bluff of James River, where Rebels drove off Union flotilla on May 15, 1862.
(CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.)
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About 7:30 on the morning of May 15, 1862, Union ironclad gunboats Monitor and Galena, part of a five-vessel flotilla, dropped anchor in the James River within 600 yards of the Confederate fort at Drewry’s Bluff, Va., and opened fire with their massive guns.

Elizabeth McCloy was a widow
 with six children.
(Images above and below
courtesy Robert McCloy)
The Federal force's effort to dislodge Rebels from the fort, about seven miles from Richmond, ended in failure.

Confederate pickets reportedly had spotted the gunboats about daylight and alerted the fort’s defenders. Southern gunners bashed holes in the Galena, killing at least 14 sailors and marines aboard and turning the vessel into “a slaughterhouse,” according to a witness. The Monitor, the famed ironclad, and its crew survived unscathed, gunfire from soldiers on the riverbank pattering upon its decks like rain.  After running out of ammunition, the Yankee gunboats sailed back down the James, ending the fight after about four hours.

"Our brave tars on the James river are not the least downhearted," a Northern newspaper wrote, coating the defeat with more than a scoop of sugar, "but expect to renew the bombardment and drive the rebels from their position."

It never happened.

At the fort on the bluff 90 feet above the James River, casualties included at least seven killed and eight wounded. And well outside the fort, one poor victim suffered a sad, and gruesome, end because of an apparently errant Union naval shell.

Irish-born William McCloy, a
Confederate officer, died of
 disease in 1862. He was

married to Elizabeth McCloy.
“Our informant,” the Petersburg (Va.) Express reported the day after the action, “saw a mule which was dreadfully mangled and killed, more than a quarter-mile from the Fort, by an explosion of a shell. The animal had three legs cut off, and its side was torn out.”

Confederate firepower was also aided by Rebel ingenuity. Steamers, schooners and sloops were sunk as obstructions in the James River beneath the bluff, preventing Union vessels from firing their weaponry at point-blank range and from sailing on to Richmond.

Evidence of  "obstructionism" survives in the form of a receipt (below) from the Confederate government for $250 for the use of  Elizabeth McCloy’s “lighter,” a small boat, as one of the “obstructions at Drury’s Bluff.”  McCloy, the mother of six children, was married to Irish-born William James McCoy, a lieutenant in the 15th Virginia (Henrico Guard), who died of disease on March 4, 1862.

Dated June 19, 1862, Mrs. McCloy's receipt indicates the Confederacy "purchased" the vessel from her after the Southerners had turned back the Union gunboats a month earlier. (Hat tip: descendant Robert McCloy, a reader of my blog.)  Images of the James River obstructions, perhaps including Mrs. McCloy's contribution to the Confederate cause, were photographed by Northern photographers in 1864 and 1865.

An 1865 image of obstructions placed in the James River by Confederates to hinder Union vessels.
(Library of Congress)
Another Confederate obstruction in the James River, near Drewry's Bluff.
(National Archives)
Receipt Elizabeth McCloy received from Confederate government for her "lighter," a small boat.
(CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.)
Close-up of Mrs. McCloy's receipt for $250 for her James River obstruction.
(Image courtesy of Robert McCloy)
The defeat of the Yankees at Drewry’s Bluff -- "quite an exciting affair," according to the Petersburg newspaper -- was a major boost for the Confederacy. By July 1, 1862, the culmination of the Seven Days Battles, the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee had finally shoved the Union army from the gates of the Confederate capital.

A post-war image of Augustus Drewry (seated center),
Confederate commander  at Drewry's Bluff on May 15, 1862.
(Courtesy Ashton H. Wheeler)
“We are pleased to learn the best spirits pervade our men,” the Express noted the day after the Drewry’s Bluff battle, “and that they are determined to make Old Abe’s 'on to Richmond' by water as difficult as have been his efforts to reach our capital on terra firma.”

Of course, Confederate newspapers took delight in pricking the dastardly Yankees -- even picking on them for their reference to Drewry's Bluff as "Fort Darling." The fort was named after local landowner Augustus Harrison Drewry, a captain in the Confederate artillery who was commander there during the attack in May 1862.  On Aug. 2, 1862, the Richmond Dispatch wrote:
“It is well known that the Yankees, in all their allusions to our batteries at Drewry’s Bluff, have applied to them the name 'Fort Darling,' and some indignation has been manifested at their assumption of the right to christen a locality which the South has made formidable. It is not, however, original with them, for that portion of the shore of James River will be found designated on some of the old maps as 'Darling’s Point,' from which they borrowed the idea; but the name should be forever ignored in the Confederate States, because it was fished up by the Yankees from the depths of the almost oblivious past, and because 'Fort Drewry,' the term given it by those who gallanty repulsed the enemy’s best gunboats, is not only proper as a compliment to one of our commanders, but in every respect applicable to the locality.”
Perhaps the dissing from the Dispatch even brought a smile to Widow McCloy.

                           PANORAMA: View of the James River from Drewry's Bluff.
                                       (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

SOURCES:

-- Reading Times, May 22, 1862.
-- Richmond Dispatch, May 19, 1862.

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